An Enlightenment botanist in Senegal

After “Soul Brother”, translated into eighteen languages, Goncourt Prize for High School Students 2018 and International Booker Prize 2021, David Diop’s new book was eagerly awaited. The writer encamps his story in the Africa of “slave makers” in the 18th century, through the imaginary testament of a character who did exist, the naturalist Michel Adanson.

The novel begins with the botanist’s last dark days, in 1806, because the famous Linnaeus questioned his classifications. Aglaé, the daughter of Michel Adanson, herself fond of flowers and cuttings, is working on the creation of the arboretum of the castle of Balaine, in the Allier. She discovers her father’s human will: it will be the story of a secret trip he made in 1750 when he was in Senegal. This man of the Enlightenment, who “spent his days and nights in painstakingly describing nearly a hundred thousand existences of plants, shells, animals of all species to the detriment of his own”, wishes to lighten his daughter, to the resulting from its reading, “of the weight of prejudices”. It is an odyssey from Saint-Louis in Senegal to Cape Verde.

David Diop reveals to us an Africa of the XVIIIe century little represented, and in its narrative breaks our habituation to the Western vision of it. There is of course the corruption and cruelty of white potentates, such as the poisonous Estoupan de La Brüe, who organizes for the Compagnie des Indes, through its subsidiary the Senegal Concession, “the great Atlantic round of the slave trade”. Under the guise of financing botanists, she uses them as clerks. The young Michel Adanson stands up against this system. “I did not hear all the counters of the river crisscrossing ivory, gum arabic or slaves for guns and powder.” Learning from the village chief of Sor that his young niece named Maram was kidnapped by the “slave makers”, and that it was decided “that she would marry death”, Adanson, in the ardor of her 23 years , goes looking for him. Direction the Gate of the No Return Journey, nickname given to the island of Gorée from which the captive Africans leave for the Americas. A guide who speaks Wolof, Ndiak, son of the king of Waalo, accompanies him, also won over by a passion for botany. The very sensory descriptions of David Diop are crossed by this passion. In a very beautiful scene, Adanson picks up a Cadelari in the middle of a backwater, perched on Ndiak’s shoulders. With the evocations of the writer, a luxuriance à la Saint-John Perse arises.

This novel is a love story. Maram, the deceased who became his healer, appears to Michel Adanson, “free and beautiful in her total nudity like a black Eve whom God has not yet driven from paradise”. But her love is not only a matter of beauty, of attraction. They are both obsessed with the mysteries of nature, Adanson to unravel them, Maram to reconcile them. And at times, the Cartesian Frenchman swings into animism. In this Wolof world where we attach the same importance to dreams as to reality, we come across fetishes, tribes, like the Laobes who cleared the bush. With Adanson, we “like to imagine that women and men on this earth know how to talk to trees and ask them for forgiveness before cutting them down.” African kings organize raids on their own villages and the sale of their subjects. As in his previous book, David Diop is keen to restore a truth to history. The slave trade did not take place without local complicity; slavery existed everywhere. In his bias for truth, in his fervor of the living, David Diop offers us the feeling of a common and distant origin of men.

“The door to the journey of no return”, by David Diop (ed. Du Seuil, 253 pages).

Judith Housez

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An Enlightenment botanist in Senegal

Hank Gilbert